Intel has announced a new partnership with virtualization giant VMWare to collaborate on building a new software platform for 5G vRAN (virtualized radio access network) infrastructure.
The platform, the pair said, will be designed with extensibility in mind, allowing telcos to build upon a framework centred around Intel's FlexRAN architecture and VMWare's RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC).
Telcos and other related third parties will be able to craft their own AI models for network monitoring, and deploy them straight to the RAN. They'll also be able to programmatically do things like dynamic network slicing, which will let operators sell dedicated 5G segments to private customers.
The RAN is the most peripheral part of 5G infrastructure, connecting external devices (like phones, routers, and IoT devices) to the core. This sphere was initially dominated by a handful of specialised providers: Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung, to name a few.
A strength of 5G is its flexibility, allowing much of the heavy computational work performed by the RAN and core network to be done on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, often running Intel's standard x86 chips. This approach can come with lower capital expenditure costs as generic beige-box kit tends to be cheaper than the more specialised wares sold by infrastructure providers.
While this has also been true for previous legacy networks to an extent (for example, India's Airtel uses virtualized LTE RANs in its apparatus), the push towards vendor-neutral hardware and virtualization has become more pronounced with 5G. This is arguably as a consequence of the turmoil faced by European carriers now forced to strip existing Huawei-made hardware from their networks.
Dimitris Mavrakis, research director at ABI Research, interpreted this new partnership as vindication for OpenRAN and vRAN tech.
"The announcement by Intel and VMware signals that the vRAN and OpenRAN spaces are rapidly expanding. The two companies are partnering to create a horizontal software platform on which existing companies and new entrants can focus on innovating, rather than spend effort and capital to create these platforms themselves.
"This announcement is a milestone in the broader OpenRAN ecosystem development, underscoring that significant growth is expected for both 4G and 5G systems. Intel's FlexRAN is well established and VMware's Telco Cloud platform will improve its capabilities tremendously." ®